Two Poems

Poetry / Brian Clifton


:: The Palpitating Wing ::


           —after Black Swan 

I saw my dark reflection in the subway car’s 
plexiglass. I was a dancer. I wore a grey coat. 
I lifted lipstick to the dark space and felt 
my puckering lips. Behind me, a man kissed 
the air. He wetted his mouth. He yanked 
at the heart in his khakis. His body told 
me to do the same. Then, I was outside, 
at the conservatory. At home, wrapped in 
a shawl, I peeled back my shoe’s sidewalls, 
removed the leather spine. My empty shoe 
wagged like a silk muscle when I dropped it. 
I felt a flower bloom and wilt within me. 
I stitched a circle around the wooden tip. 
It held me up. We spun under the house 
lights. I palpitated in a mirror. Many mirrors 
in the dressing room. My face in them. 
The other dancers, wrapped in black elastic, 
bounced between their surfaces like a gala’s 
soft light skipping across sequins, diamonds, 
glass. Glasses everywhere. A screaming face 
etched in every surface. All I did was look. 
The lockstep motion of clapping hands. 
Spoon against flute. I saw the improbable 
mathematics of a line of dancers practicing 
their positions at random. We stretched 
our tendons on the bare floor. We arced 
our limbs. We posed in cocktail dresses 
to applause—its hive-like twitching. Let us 
touch a crystal flute, let us bleed Tchaikovsky 
until Tchaikovsky drips his iron rosé into us. 
On the stairs, under my thin breastbone, 
my heart did a little number. Rapid pump 
to be adored, to be pecked, some bread torn 
and tossed into the water. On the surface
the ghost hand that threw it to swans. 
The reflection rippled—an arm like a wing, 
an eye darting surface to surface while the body 
posed as if on stage, which it will be, which I 
will be. I will turn in the spotlight and then 
in the back changing outfits. In the mirror 
the thick lines dashed on my cheekbones 
cradle an empty face—jaw unhinged, pulled 
up like a veil crowned with teeth. My chest 
heaved. My foot in fog. In the orchestral 
pit, the strings increased their quivering. 
I counted the measures, the beat like heels 
clipping across the gala’s floor to a bronze 
statue with a face smeared white, its eyes 
recessed coals plugged into the brow’s thick 
gesture. I adjusted my shift. A woman called 
me a fucking little whore. My mouth opened. 
I spun. In each revolution, I focused on 
the light above the crowd. In the bulb, 
its filament vibrated. It sung. It licked 
every inch. I cascaded across the stage, 
eyes bloodshot, legs like a swan’s coiling 
neck. Then, the body like a sinking feather. 
The mind delayed a half-beat so the steps 
waver like spit from a sleeping mouth. 
In the light, I was asleep and wide awake; 
I slunk to the wings. The dark in which 
the director waited. I rubbed my face on 
his. Everyone believed I transfigured 
into a swan and her sister swan. The stage 
a bed I belonged in. A complete wound 
is not open but scarred. We look and say 
believe the skin. I bowed. On the subway’s 
stairs, its floodlight. At the top, in the dark, 
a figure stirred. I was its twin. I uncupped 
my fist; I saw my pulse pump. What was 
inside me was still at work, alone in the dark. 


:: The Suspended Body ::

—after The Neon Demon
We were introduced through a friend at her house party. It was high school, and I can’t remember what happened to her. We stepped outside and she said, This is K. She gestured to a slight man, a boy, who turned to us from the lawn. His body wounded the dusk, and I felt compelled to rub the dark spot he cast until it healed into a scar, the kind that brightens in a hot bath, a forget-me- not of blood beneath skin. We shook, exchanged numbers. I left. In high school, I could twist in and out of experiences. I drove to one house where I laughed. I drove to another and sat silently until finally we thrust our mouths against each other like carp at a dock. I did this often, and often in the short term I forgot one night or conflated a few. Then, months later, like the sharpened teeth of road kill suddenly visible (gums and jowls shriveled), a focused glimpse— my body splayed on the dark wheel of a trampoline, a blooming smoke bomb in the sweet spot of my mouth. Yes, every part of my body is appalled by the relish with which it took to this. At home and late, my phone shook. It was K. He asked me to join him in the city. It was raining. It hit the asphalt and turned into mist. I shimmied out the bedroom window and into my car. I drove to the city, where streetlights hung above men who lounged at their bases—sequined jackets, mini-skirts. The collected light moved like an anxious finger across a neckline, over a temple, coming to rest in eye-shadow. I stared until they returned my stare, and my face turned in theirs to a morning glory’s quickened mouth-blossom (sucking daylight until, groggy, it snaps shut). K said he could get us in without ID. The bar hummed with bass, distorted until dull like the sound of a thumb flicked slow against the thigh. I inhaled the friction’s sweet smell. Under it the rancid bud of collected sweat. K pulled me up the stairs. In the dark the breakbeats let loose their strobe. K’s face twisted into a mess of pleasure. I turned to see a shape ahead. It phased in and out with the lights as if a figure in a dream or the illusions that float in the dark when the body is ready for a dream but the mind stays pinned awake—unwinding the ceiling until it’s no longer a ceiling but the dragging belly scales of a godlike snake, no, a thousand tangling bodies searching for a mate. Ahead, a bound body, naked, the rapid strobe pumping the image into our pupils. He hung suspended by an unseeable wire. Belly pulled toward the ceiling, shoulders arched, head dangling, arms secured to the back’s semi-circle. In the red light, the body turned; it was a fine orchid, a ghost washed in blood. I watched K. His eyes on the body that turned on the wire, vibrating while the house lights quivered. Another figure joined. He stroked the body with a feather. He tugged a glistening chain. I felt K move closer to me. His slight frame and mine jostled past each other. His face brought close. My mouth slackened. But he did not cover it with his, did not tongue my tongue. So I pushed my wet mouth toward his. He recoiled. I could see his full face. It never occurred to me until then how similar a tongue and a flower are. It was as if his face were an overgrown field my hands turned until a fleshy red burst through and I craned lower. Not a flower but a tongue, slick on a creeper, not just one but a dozen. I wanted to hold of them and lift them for the wind to wag like the flesh inside the mouth of someone possessed (the ecstatic word, the trembling syntax), but no wind blew, and I did not move.



From the writer


:: Account ::

Film is such a beau­ti­ful thing. It can scram­ble time. It can make mon­sters. It can tell a sto­ry. It can lie about the sto­ry it says it’s telling. I love watch­ing film and tele­vi­sion. One per­son mak­ing an image just for you to con­tem­plate. And then anoth­er and anoth­er. Add dia­logue. Add a sound­track. The world pro­ject­ed onto a wall from a plas­tic box. 

I take a lot of inspi­ra­tion from film. I always have. In my most recent poems, I want­ed to do that more inten­tion­al­ly. “The Sus­pend­ed Body” takes an image from the film The Neon Demon as a start­ing point and manip­u­lates it. “The Pal­pi­tat­ing Wing” begins and ends in the film Black Swan. What inter­ests me is how we watch movies and tele­vi­sion and believe it is about us, how we eas­i­ly con­flate the screen and the I. 

And isn’t this how hor­ror works? A shad­ow moves behind a char­ac­ter. A creep­er lurks just out of their view. The vio­lins shoot their needling, the bass swells. These things are for us. The movie is try­ing to scare us, not its char­ac­ters. I want to cap­ture that moment when the art form reach­es beyond its 35mm into the the­ater, the liv­ing room, the brain. 


Bri­an Clifton is the author of the chap­books MOT and Agape (both from Osman­thus Press). They have work in: Pleiades, Guer­ni­ca, Cincin­nati Review, Salt Hill, Col­orado Review, The Jour­nal, Beloit Poet­ry Jour­nal, and oth­er mag­a­zines. They are an avid record col­lec­tor and cura­tor of curiosities.